The illegalization of alcohol (consumption and manufacture) was passed into law at a national level in 1919 and enacted in 1920. Often historians regard Prohibition as the culmination, perhaps the over-extension, of the efforts at social change which thrived during the era. Indeed, because of the many important social policies determined, the period of American history from 1865 until 1920 is often called the "Progressive Era." During the period, unions expanded greatly, a number of basic labor rights were secured, including a minimum working age, and women gained the right to vote with the Nineteenth Amendment (1920). Ironically, at the same time that America was pushing forward its own social policy with a number of progressive, forward-looking policies, the first Red Scare ended up in the jailing of tens of thousands of innocent people. The government played an official hand in the chaos, coordinating raids across the country.

A Prohibition Party political cartoon (Kerr).

Before Prohibition became national law, there were previous attempts at imposing "dryness" upon Americans. A national political party, aptly named the Prohibition Party, was formed on the basis of its "dry" stance in the 1869. From 1873 to 1874, a large coalition of women led the "Woman's Crusade," a movement which sought the destruction of liquor and the closure of saloons through direct actions, primarily petition campaigns and demonstrations. Later, a number of civic groups formed to organize the prohibition effort. The most well-known of these is the Anti-Saloon League, which had offices throughout the States and worked closely with churches to push forward the movement.

An Anti-Saloon League Banner (Kerr).

One of the most outspoken rivals of Prohibition was Percy Andreae, who organized a saloon-backed campaign against the illegalization of liquor. Andreae reveals the connection between religious interests and the political motivations of the Prohibitionists, demanding that the Prohibition movement was largely the result of religious forces attaching themselves to a policy fad to spread their ideals. He writes:

"Prohibition is merely the title of the movement. Its real purpose is of a religious, sectarian character, and this applies not only to the movement in America, but to the same movement in England, a fact which, strangely enough, has rarely, if at all, been recognized by those who have dealt with the question in the public press.

If there is any one who doubts the truth of this statement, let me put this to him: How many Roman Catholics are prohibitionists? How many Jews, the most temperate race on earth, are to be found in the ranks of prohibition? Or Lutherans? Or German Protestants generally? What is the proportion of Episcopalians to that of Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians, and the like, in the active prohibition army? The answer to these questions will, I venture to say, prove conclusively the assertion that the fight for prohibition is synonymous with the fight of a certain religious sect, or group of religious sects, for the supremacy of its ideas. In England it is the Nonconformists, which is in that country the generic name for the same sects, who are fighting the fight, and the suppression of liquor there is no more the ultimate end they have in view than it is here in America. It is the fads and restrictions that are part and parcel of their lugubrious notion of Godworship which they eventually hope to impose upon the rest of humanity; a Sunday without a smile, no games, no recreation, no pleasures, no music, card-playing tabooed, dancing anathematized, the beauties of art decried as impure-in short, this world reduced to a barren, forbidding wilderness in which we, its inhabitants, are to pass our time contemplating the joys of the next. Rather problematical joys, by the way, if we are to suppose we shall worship God in the next world in the same somber way as we are called upon by these worthies to do in this" (Andreae, 10).

It was with the American declaration of war in 1917 that the Prohibitionists got the push in support necessary to enact the Volstead Act at a national level. The seriousness of the war seemed to demand a nation with a singularly serious mind, and so the prohibitionists propagandized around the war, inventing slogans like, "Sober soldiers and factory hands are better soldiers and factory hands" (Allsop, 28). A few years after the U.S. began its involvement in World War I, the Amendment passed. In the Senate the Amendment passed after only 13 hours of debate, and in the House it passed after only one day (Allsop, 28).

A cartoon criticizing Chicago politicians for their corruption (Kerr).

A stamp commemorating the Prohibition Era (Citation).

Prohibition did create a huge drop-off in consumption in its first few years (see this external website for a graph on alcohol consumption), despite claims that it was the "most alcoholic period in American history" (Allsop, 25). However, very quickly after this drop, as we can see, the amount of consumption began to rise.

The rise was likely caused by the proliferation of illegal ("bootlegged") alcohol. Bootlegging, interestingly, began before Prohibition, and actually continued after it, as a means of bypassing high taxes on alcohol. Without tax, bootleg liquor was sold much cheaper than legal alcohol. By 1930, bootlegging was much more efficiently organized, thanks to criminals who turned the operations into a full-fledged illicit industry. By that year, it was estimated that 10,000 speakeasies were operating (Allsop, 33). In Chicago, hundreds of bars that were supposed to close simply stayed open after Prohibition became law. There were innumerable "blind pigs," bars and saloons with blank fronts (unmarked with any indication of their function), through which one entered a side door, often fitted with a peep hole(Allsop, 28). A gentleman's magazine at the time featured an article on bootlegging, and had this to say, "The sale of dissipation is not only a great business; it is among the few greatest businesses of Chicago. The leading branch of it ... is the sale of alcoholic liquor.... The liquor interests are vastly more extended in Chicago that any other [city]. There are 7,300 licensed liquor sellers in Chicago, and in addition about a thousand places where liquor is sold illegally. The only business which approaches it in number of establishments ... is the grocery trade, which has about 5,200. The city spends at least half as much for what it drinks as for what it eats..." (Turner, 576).

Great Lakes Brewing Company's "Elliot Ness" amber lager (Citation)

The reason bootlegged liquor stayed so prominent was simple: it turned an enormous profit; the cost of manufacture was nil compared to the amount that could be made from selling it. In one year during Prohibition, it was estimated that professional bootleggers made about $4,000,000,000 (Allsop, 33). A few clever bootleggers convinced doctors to write them prescriptions for alcohol (medicinal use was not illegalized by the Volstead Act), finding that many druggists took a prescription as a ticket for unlimited purchase (Allsop, 34).




Ultimately, it was largely the harsh enforcement of Prohibition which led many to ultimately reject it - the defenders of the movement seem to have become far too fervent in their dedication. For example, in 1928 Fred Palm of Lansing, Michigan was given life imprisonment for possessing a pint of gin; in 1929 an Aurora, Illinois housewife was killed and her husband clubbed by a deputy sheriff searching for liquor; in 1928, an innocent insurance agent was killed during a Chicago raid (Allsop, 36). Another example of the extremity of enforcement is provided (ironically) through the brother of Al Capone, "Three Gun" Hart. Nine days after his election, Roosevelt asked Congress to amend the Volstead Act to permit brewing and sale of beverages up to 3.2% alcohol. In February, 1933 resolutions to repeal the amendment were passed and Prohibition came to an end.

An anti-Prohibition campaign poster (Citation).


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